AUSTIN, Texas -- Taking the stage Monday night for a live debate hosted by public television station KERA-TV in Dallas, the four Republican candidates for lieutenant governor sought to carve out distinctions on the big issues.

Asked for their positions on marijuana laws, most seemed to be on the same page. Incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and state Sen. Dan Patrick all voiced opposition to any change in the state's current policies concerning recreational and medical marijuana.

I would not legalize it. I would not decriminalize it, said Dewhurst. I think marijuana can be an addictive drug and cause problems for people who are suffering from that addiction.

We do not need to lower our standards, Staples said. On a follow up question, Staples added to his position, I think those that are receiving government assistance should not be eligible if they're illegally using narcotic substances in our state, and our laws need to reflect that fully.

We know the medical research proves, without question, that marijuana does impact young people more than older people, said Patrick. So it's a non-starter with me.

The exception was Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson. While opposed to legalizing marijuana for recreational use, Patterson explained his support for medical use by comparing the drug's active component tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to other pharmaceutical agents.

We have medical barbiturates. We have medical amphetamines. We have medical codeine. We have medical all of these compounds, said Patterson. I'm not a doctor, but if there is medical efficacy for the use of tetrahydrocannabinol and the doctor prescribes it, I see nothing wrong with that. We're talking about medicine. We're not talking about recreational use.

On Thursday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry made headlines voicing his long-standing support for lighter sentences and alternative treatments for marijuana users. Participating in a panel discussion on drug policy at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, Perry's use of the term decriminalization to describe state drug courts put in place to keep non-violent offenders out of jail raised eyebrows.

Perry has consistently opposed any form of legal marijuana in Texas, but during the same discussion, he again emphasized his belief that states should have the authority to determine marijuana policy rather than the federal government. Currently 21 states allow some form of medical marijuana, and Colorado and Washington began allowing the sale of marijuana for recreational use this year.

While few expect to see Texas follow Colorado, efforts to relax the state's laws when it comes to medical marijuana users have been going on inside the Texas Legislature for years. State Rep. Elliott Naishtat (D-Austin) has spent nearly a decade trying to pass a state law providing a legal defense for patients whose doctors suggest marijuana could help their symptoms.

We make a little bit of progress every session, Naishtat told KVUE. Last session, for the first time, we had a hearing. And it was very compelling, because the people who testified were people with legitimate medical conditions who were using marijuana strictly for medicinal purpose, and it helped them to live and to work.

One of those was Vincent Lopez, a patient with muscular dystrophy interviewed by KVUE in December 2012. After trying numerous synthetic drugs, which he said caused nausea, loss of appetite and weight loss, Lopez said marijuana provided better pain relief without the side effects.

It seems to stimulate appetite. It seems to alleviate my spasms, alleviate my muscle stiffness, alleviate the pain throughout my back that I feel daily, Lopez said. If anything, it helps me just get on about my day in the most comfort that I can possibly be.

Regardless of medical cannabis or not, we still have to face our trial, Lopez said. And when we see an answer that can alleviate the pains of that trial, then it's very much worth our effort to fight for it.

Naishtat says the laws passed by Colorado and Washington voters have amplified the spotlight on marijuana policy and have generated renewed discussion in Texas as well. Rather than legalize medical marijuana, Naishtat's bill would allow a patient arrested for using marijuana at home for medical reasons to avoid a penalty by providing a judge with a doctor's note suggesting marijuana treatment. While many of his colleagues have expressed their private support, Naishtat says it has been difficult to turn that support into votes.

We have a big hurdle to overcome. There are too many members of the Texas House of Representatives who say to me, 'Elliott, I can't take the chance of looking weak on crime,' said Naishtat. What I'm talking about should not be a crime.

Naishtat says when the 84th Texas Legislature meets in January 2015, the odds are better than ever that his legislation will move forward. Yet, even if it advances beyond the committee level to a floor vote, he admits final passage is still a long shot. Nevertheless, it's a debate that will continue.
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